14 sept. 2009

How to listen to a jazz solo (without knowing much about music theory)

1. Start by mapping it out. What is the form of the song? Is it 32 bars in AABA or ABAC, or a 12-bar blues? Listen to the solo while counting out the measure and hear it as successive 8 measure phrases. Play the original melody of the song in your head while the solo is going on, or simply count out the measure like this: 1234, 2234, 3234, 4234...

2. Now categorize the principal techniques, like melodic paraphrase, ornamentation, etc... What kind of a solo is it? How inventive or formulaic does it sound?

3. Measure the intensity levels. Where is the player just coasting along? Where does he or she reach a peak of intensity? How is this peak signaled? (e.g. playing higher, faster, more repetitively)? What is the overall shape of the solo? What is its beginning middle and end? Is the solo well-organized, does it tell a story, or is it kind of random sounding?

4. How does the player use space and silence? How long are the typical phrases? For example, is an 8-bar phrase just one continuous stream of swung 8th notes? Where are phrases marked in terms of the ONE? Listen for the spacing of the intervals, the upward and downward movement, the swing, the "lilt," etc...

5. How clear or opaque is the relation of melody to harmony? Here I get into trouble because I don't know anything about music theory. If you're like me, you will experience this step as simply a subjective experience of the degree of dissonance or harmonic complexity. Of course jazz players are playing for listeners, most of whom won't be musicologists, so your subjective reaction is good enough for me. Sometimes I have a name for what I hear--like I know the B section of Bemsha Swing is the same melody a fourth up. Usually, however, I don't have a name for what I am hearing.

I'd love to do this for you at some point if I have time.